Why 40% is the magic number in the Scottish referendum

Brazil v Scotland 22For some reason, 40% is a figure which has long exerted political significance.

That devolution for Scotland wasn’t introduced in 1979 wasn’t because a majority of those who voted didn’t want it: by 52% to 48% the Scottish voted in favour of establishing a Scottish parliament. However, a Labour MP, George Cunningham, introduced an amendment to the Scotland Act (1978) specifying a minimum turnout threshold of 40% of the electorate. The actual turnout of 33% meant Scottish devolution had to wait a further two decades.

I was reminded of this when talking recently to a Lib Dem who was heavily involved in the Alternative Vote referendum campaign. “Did you ever think it was winnable?” I asked. “Not by about January,” he admitted. “But I did hope we could get at least 40% voting for it – that would have kept electoral reform on the table.” The actual result, a heavy defeat of AV by 68% to 32% on a 42% turnout, meant that chance was lost.

I’d suggest there’s something similarly important about the end-result in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. The polls are consistently clear that the Scots will not vote for separation from the rest of the UK. However, they disagree about the likely margin – an odd phenomenon YouGov’s Peter Kellner wrote about this week. My rule-of-thumb is that a Yes vote above 40% and the question of independence remains alive; below 40% and it is settled for a generation (though like the UK’s membership of the European Union it may never be truly resolved).

However, the idea that defeat for independence will mean the SNP shrinks away, tail between its legs, is wide of the mark. At least one senior Labour figure, a former cabinet minister, has privately highlighted the danger to his party of a No vote at the May 2015 general election. His reason? Having rejected independence, the Scottish voters will want an insurance policy their wishes won’t be ignored by Westminster. A large SNP representation there would be the best way to ensure that. He predicts up to 30 Scottish nationalist MPs will be returned.

I don’t know Scottish politics well enough to know how plausible such a scenario is. But, if he’s right, Alex Salmond poses much more of a danger to Labour’s election hopes than Nigel Farage.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • The question is why Scotland has had 2 recent referendums on our union but LibDem don’t think the UK should have one on the EU I see no equality in that at all

  • Charles Rothwell 6th Jul '14 - 11:17am

    I know very little indeed about Scottish politics but my feeling is that, with the ‘Yes’ vote running at around 47% (I believe), I doubt (unless some totally unforeseen event occurs) that the vote will, as jedibeeftrix believes, will “decisively melt away”. My feeling is that the “No” vote will swing it BUT by a narrow margin (something like 52/48?) and that, in that case, independence will (unlike reform of the Westminster franchise following the AV disaster (which I agree entirely with David Pollard had little to do with the apparent issue and much more to do with disenchanted/estranged LD votes ‘getting their own back’ post-tuition fees)) definitely NOT be ‘off the agenda’ for a generation but, after the initial disappointment, spur the SNP on to give it all they have got and (as with devolution and bearing in mind Robert the Bruce and the spider!) will go for it again until they win. In the longer term, I personally agree with the person who posted yesterday saying the only ultimate long-term solution is ‘home rule all round’ and that England desperately needs true regional devolution away from London (e.g. as shown by the recent idiocy of trying to run thousands of academy schools from Westminster!) The LDs should be at the very forefront of this, claiming the inheritance of Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain as you are never, ever going to get genuine devolution within England from either Conservatives or Labour who are so locked into central, top-down control they cannot really change their true nature (as I am sure both Lord Heseltine and John Cruddas will be able to attest in the near future!) (A good start to this would be to stop getting weak-kneed and ashen faced when the word ‘federalist’ is mentioned (e.g. by the red tops who are attempting to put it on a par with child molestation and drug dealing as a no-go term). In the past weeks/months, I have only heard ONE commentator actually defend the term ‘federalist’ and point out that it has a totally different meaning in other European countries (e.g. Germany which, overall, does not seem to have done so poorly as a nation over the past 60 years) and that was CHARLES KENNEDY (in an interview on the ‘Daily Politics’). All power to him!

  • My guess is that we have two stories running here. One is the long-running argument for Scottish independence, which, considered in isolation, doesn’t make sense, which is why the union of the crowns and then the union of the parliaments made sense and has worked..

    The big game-changer is the EU. Full participation in a stable EU makes increased autonomy for regions across the EU a viable proposition, with the excision a best done at EU level happening there, and the ones best done regionally happening there. At the moment I think we are in an awkward transition: we are using the language of independence from a long time ago, to describe a glimpse of “.increased regional autonomy” that is a emerging but is not yet fully formed. That is a rather dangerous cocktail.

    Crucially, what this does mean is that independence as Alex Salmond seems to phrase it is date language, but devo-max, far from being some sort of compromise or “second best” is part of a trend applying across the whole EU — and it is one that has been brilliantly pioneered by the federal structure of Germany.

  • paul barker 6th Jul '14 - 12:00pm

    Great theory until you look at Quebec where the vote for Independence in 1995 was 49.7%. That was 19 years ago, a big chunk of a generation. The seperatists have been in & out of Government since.

  • Steve Comer 6th Jul '14 - 8:20pm

    Why do so ma ny people seem to want a referendum on the EU, but never a referendum on continued membership of NATO? Article 5 of the NATO treaty means a Russian intervention in the Baltic would put the UK into a world war, yet too many Brits accept that but baulk at a few EU directives? Funny old world sometimes…..

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '14 - 10:54pm

    The ratchet-like mechanism is a design error, as is demonstrated by the increasing anti-EU sentiment throughout the EU populations.

    To serve the original design purpose of reducing the risk of war, all that is needed is an appropriate amount of inter-dependency and familiarity, mainly perhaps in terms of habits and supply chains alone, so that moving back from that inter-dependency to a state of hostility has strong negative consequences for all parties.

    Now what we are seeing is that the promotion of more union is increasing friction rather than harmony. Which suggests that union has gone too far, or is approaching that point.

    Those in favour of the ratchet need to recognize that reality.

  • Anyone who thinks that the Yes vote will drop to 30% in September is I think being unduly optimistic on the union’s behalf.

    Anyone who thinks that it will top 50% is being a little overoptimistic on the independence side, but by a considerably smaller amount. It’ll likely be in the 40% range, with the wildcard being No’s less enthusiastic supporters against the extremely bold recruitment efforts made by Yes.

    The vote is unlikely to deliver independence this time around. The ball will then be in Westminster’s court – deliver the real autonomy that devolved government needs to work, deliver it to the whole country, and do so without throwing our economic opportunity and our place around the bargaining tables of the world away, and a second vote might never even happen.

  • matt (Bristol) 7th Jul '14 - 9:50am

    Paul Barker, Quebec already sits within a federal polity.

  • David Evershed 7th Jul '14 - 7:41pm

    Since the ‘Union’ is between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (originally the whole of Ireland) then the non Scotland part should also get a vote about a breakup.

    In my view ‘The Rest of the UK’ wouild probably vote Scotland out of the UK.

  • Little Jackie Paper 7th Jul '14 - 8:49pm

    jedibeeftrix – Come off it, neofunctionalism is more than just the EU.

    NATO expands beyond the original treaty, that’s a, ‘ratchet.’ Mode 4 comes along in trade talks where previously there was no Mode 4, that’s a, ‘ratchet.’ Trade Courts come along, that’s a, ‘ratchet.’ R2P – that’s a ratchet. The ICC, that’s a ratchet. At the very least with the EU there are opt-outs (make of them what you will). If there is a wish for a debate about the nation-state in a world that technology has made ever more interconnected then fine. If you want to talk about the conflict of interests between the mobile wealthy and the rest, then fine. If you want to talk about the relationship between supranationalism (EU and non-EU) and majoritarian models of democracy then fine too. How do you think mode 4 would go down in a referendum about now?

    But there is much more here than the EU and keep saying, ‘acquis,’ over and over again doesn’t change it.

  • NATO, so far as I know, has not tried to interfere in domestic politics, for example by trying to dictate to Westminster who should be allowed to vote in its elections. NATO confines itself, in its demands on its member states, to things which are directly relevant to its purpose: defence budgets and the like.

    ‘Mode 4’ seems to be about temporary residence for foreign nationals; I’m not sure why that’s a ‘ratchet’? Similarly the ICC, so far as I know, has not tried to expand beyond its original remit so I don’t know in what way that’s a ‘ratchet’.

    The EU is the only example I know which started off as a free trade area but has continually used ‘ratchet’ powers to stick its nose into more and more areas of domestic law, such as labour law, the franchise, equalities law, tax law, and so on and so forth, that it has no business abrogating to itself. Not to mention outrageous demands like pre-approval of national budgets!

    That is why the EU ‘ratchet’ is the only one which people object to,

    If NATO started dictating to member countries how their labour law should be organised, or asking to see budgets before they are presented to Parliament, then you’d see the same sort of outcry. But it doesn’t. Because NATO has a function and it sticks to it. It does not try to become a super-state.

  • @David Evershed

    The rest of the UK isn’t governed by a party that stood on the primary goal of removing its bit from the union, nor on a goal of removing Scotland from the whole.

    I don’t really understand why anyone would think people outside of the jurisdiction concerned should get a vote. It would be like expecting to get a vote to decide who the MP is in a different constituency, or expecting to be able to join in the US Presidential election. Sure, it affects you and feel free to make your opinion known, but at the end of the day is it really any of your business?

  • Richard Dean 8th Jul '14 - 1:47am

    It is surely a liberal principle that, if something affects a person, the person normally has some rights to hold opinions on the matter, and even voting rights on it if it’s a political matter. However, in cases like divorce, if one person doesn’t want to continue with the marriage, it’s normally appropriate to allow that person to go his or her own way, after an appropriate settlement has been reached. I guess union with Scotland is being seen like that.

  • David Evershed 8th Jul '14 - 2:06am

    After any meger of two parties (as Scotland with Rest of UK was) any separation has to be by mutual agreement. Because the union was so long ago the parties have become very intertwined and the unilateral exit from union could be serious for the other party.

    For example supposing England decided unilaterally to exit from the Uk and leave Scotland Wales and NI. Or London unilaterally decided to exit England. Should the people in the abandoned areas not have a say in the exit of the other party?

  • @David Evershed


    The ‘abandoned areas’ would have an absolute right to a negotiated settlement on the terms of that separation, and those terms would have to be mutually acceptable and democratically legitimate in the political aspects of the process.

    But the decision to start the separation? No, each part needs to have the right to decide to walk out.

  • However, in cases like divorce, if one person doesn’t want to continue with the marriage, it’s normally appropriate to allow that person to go his or her own way, after an appropriate settlement has been reached

    You can’t just get divorced because you ‘don’t want to continue with the marriage’, though. You need grounds, and simply not wanting to continue is not sufficient.

    I don’t think divorce is a very good analogy here, really.

  • Robin Bennett 8th Jul '14 - 12:19pm

    Stephen, SNP representation at Westminster fell from 11 to 2 at the General Election after the 1979 devolution referendum, so defeat for independence may mean the SNP “shrinks away, tail between its legs”.

  • SNP representation at Westminster fell from 11 to 2 at the General Election after the 1979 devolution referendum

    However, that was when the Conservatives were a viable party in Scotland.

    The SNP’s recent rise has been because they are the only viable opposition to Labour in Scotland, due to the toxicity of the Conservative brand.

    Following the coming ‘No’ vote, there will still be no viable alternative to Labour in Scotland except the SNP (the Liberal Democrats never managed to become that even before their self-immolation in 2010).

    So provided the SNP doesn’t collapse in in-fighting and recriminations following the ‘No’ vote (which is possible) then there is still a place for it mainly because there is no alternative.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '14 - 12:44pm

    Robin, Dav – the other difference between now and 1979 is that 1979 was a devolution referendum. Now we have devolution, so there is an operating devolved political sphere in which the SNP is (currently) a party of government. Its voters have less chance of feeling a vote for them is a ‘wasted vote’. I don’t necessarily see SNP support dipping after a No-vote.

    I agree with Stephen’s thesis that roughly 40% is a key margin for the SNP’s future and the future of the independence question – although the scale of the turnout will also be another key issue in determining how to read the runes after the referendum.

    But I think the issue will be, not whether independence ‘goes away’ as an issue, as it is now not going to go away – it’s about how long it goes away for, and whether a convincing compromise or alternative can be put in place that convinces enough people in Scotland for the independence position to become once more clearly the position of a small minority, not of a large and potentially growing minority as it iis now becoming.

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Jul '14 - 1:38pm

    David Evershed
    “After any meger of two parties (as Scotland with Rest of UK was) any separation has to be by mutual agreement.”

    Really? So, the UK was right to resist militarily the withdrawal of Ireland, because they had no right to withdraw unilaterally? The Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation was in the right when it went to war to prevent first Slovenia, then Croatia from ending their union? Was it wrong for the Baltic states to leave the Soviet Union without Russia’s say-so? In the debate over a UK referendum on the EU, should we be insisting that the rest of the EU also gets a vote on whether to allow us to leave?

    Really, it’s quite insupportable to suggest that you have the right to forcibly prevent the people of one part of a union from leaving. There’s even a word for it: occupation. Fortunately, there isn’t the slightest chance of this bizarrely undemocratic idea prevailing. If Scotland votes Yes, it will get independence (for good or ill or mind-numbing indifference), and that’s how it should be.

  • Steve Coltman 8th Jul '14 - 2:24pm

    Malcolm Todd & David Evershed – Scotland and London are two separate issues entirely. Scotland was a separate country that voluntarily decided to join in a union with England, Wales and Ireland (as was). I personally would not dispute their right to reverse that decision (although I sincerely hope they won’t). London, on the other hand, has never had a separate existence from the rest of England and has no right to independence at all, no matter how many London residents might wish it. Only if there was mutual agreement could London split off. Civil wars have been fought over issues like this, it’s not a matter for frivolous debate.

  • London, on the other hand, has never had a separate existence from the rest of England

    Not true. Originally, London was a Roman port, completely separate from Anglo-Saxon England (which the Romans then set about conquering).

    I suppose maybe you could argue that in that case an independent London should include Colchester.

    But you can’t claim that London has never had a separate existence from the rest of England. It was founded by foreign invaders at a time when there wasn’t even really any such entity as ‘England’, but inasmuch as there was anything that could be identified as ‘England’, London wasn’t part of it.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '14 - 3:58pm

    Colin, I think you overstate the brevity of the timescale, but I agree that without a noticeable power-shift within the UK (or even the replacement of the UKGBNI with an FKGBNI), the independence quesiton will recur, possibly more violently.

    The timescale is more likely to be like that of Ireland:

    1850s – union with UK is not questioned in ‘respectable’ debate
    – 1860s – measures to devolve some instutitions (church, universities)
    – 1880s and 1890s – multiple failed attempts to either devolve an Irish Parliament or create Irish regional councils or governments
    – 1910s – renewed campaign for devolution / home rule
    – 1914 – home rule agreed by parliament but not enacted
    – 1917 – abortive uprising
    – 1920s – civil war, leading to formal secession of Ireland and creation and devolution of N Ireland within UK.

    These things take time, and there is obviously not in the Scottish case the sense of violent outrage that gave Irish independence the fury and vigour of an un-righted wrong…

  • this current Scottish Parliament is well within its moral rights to rescind the Act of Union on the Scottish side

    No, it isn’t. Because it has no standing to do so.

    Parliament cannot bind is successors, but the current Scottish Parliament is not the successor of the Scottish Parliament which passed the Act of Union. The successor of that Parliament is the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

    The current Scottish Parliament is a new body. There is no continuity between it and the Scottish Parliament of 1707, whereas there is continuity between the Scottish Parliament of 1707 and the Parliament of the United Kingdom currently meeting at Westminster.

    The current Scottish Parliament is however within its rights to petition the Parliament of the United Kingdom, acting in its capacity as the successor to the Parliament which passed the Act of Union, to repeal the Act (which is what it has done). But it cannot demand the UK Parliament do so, because it is the UK Parliament which is the proper legal successor to the Scottish Parliament whihc passed the Act of Union and therefore it is that Parliament which has sole authority to repeal it.

  • If you ask the Englishman on the street it’s as if we got Scotland the same way we got Wales, by conquest.

    Isn’t that actually the SNP’s line?

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '14 - 4:21pm

    @Dav and Steve:
    (intense historical geekery time!)
    London as a Roman settlement HAS, of course, had an existence before ‘England’.
    However, it is possible to argue that it has always been regarded as an integral part of the Kingdom of the English / England, which is usually dated back to either Edward the Elder (styled ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ and son of Alfred of Wessex) or more concretely his son Athelstan (whose reign as ‘King of the English’ began in c927). Edward the Elder conquered London in 911 and it has not really left ‘England’ (not a phrase heard of at that time) since.

    This is a demonstrably different history from ‘Scotland’ (again, not a phrase generally heard of at that time either)

    But on the other hand, London has enjoyed special devolved status within England since at least the 12th century; it has a reasonable claim to historic distinctiveness in a way that few other Southern English territories do (and probably more ‘historic legitimacy’ if you accept that as a concept, than the current borders of Wales).

  • This is a demonstrably different history from ‘Scotland’ (again, not a phrase generally heard of at that time either)

    Of course it is, because all histories are unique. But the point is that it is false to claim that London has ‘never had a separate existence from the rest of England’ and then use that as a reason why London cannot petition for independence just like Scotland can.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '14 - 4:39pm

    In response to Colin and Dav:

    Colin: “this current Scottish Parliament is well within its moral rights to rescind the Act of Union”
    Dav: “No, it isn’t. Because it has no standing to do so.”

    Ah, well, if you’re talking MORAL rights, it’s about perception, not fact.

    Technically, Dail Eirrean had no rights in the sense that Dav means it to declare itself the parliament of Ireland in 1919, but it felt itself to have a moral right to do so, and was able to convince enough people that it did, with the aid of force and a pretty nasty civil war, that no-one has since challenged it.

    This was helped (in some people’s minds) by the fact that the Home Rule Bill of 1914 had established a ‘legal right’ for Ireland to have a parliament, that had not been accomplished. Dail Eirrean was not that parliament (nor was it the successor to the Irish Parliaments of the early 19th century, which is what the founders of Sinn Feinn had originally envisaged in their plan for devolution-by-secession), but make something stick for long enough and you have established what the military types like to call the ‘facts on the ground’.

    What future UK governments have to do (if Scotland does not secede now and they do not wish it to) is continue to conduct scottish affiars so that a grievance of this kind is not allowed to build up; What the SNP have to do is find one.

    A devolved federal structure within England would help, in my opinion, as Scotland would have less opportunity to see itself as a special case, and more as a partner among equals.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Jul '14 - 4:47pm

    @ Dav: “it is false to claim that London has ‘never had a separate existence from the rest of England’ and then use that as a reason why London cannot petition for independence just like Scotland can.”

    Yes, I agree with you there, if that is your point; I don’t think I was arguing against you, rather more that I was arguing against Steve Coltman. But I think you undermine this by the argument you make later against Colin.

    The concept of a ‘right to independence’ (Steve Coltman’s phrase) is not terribly helpful; territories and communities redefine themselves and their relationships with other territories over and over again, the law of the land is only one of the ways they do this and it often lags behind the others; however, it is easier to pin down and track and clarify. If by 2085, Bristol conceives itself to have a right to independence, it will campaign for it and find hisotrical precendents for it, irrespective of the consitutitional law.

  • A devolved federal structure within England would help, in my opinion

    But as mentioned, England (in general; not counting a few rabid Cornish nationalists or leftover Yorkists) has no appetite for establishing yet another level of bureaucracy, so a ‘federal structure within England’ is a non-starter of an idea.

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